Tag Archives: circus

The Big Story Of Old Bet, America’s First Circus Elephant

PODCAST Before the American circus existed, animal menageries travelled the land, sometimes populated with exotic creatures. This is the story of the perhaps the most extraordinary wandering menagerie of all.

This year marks the end to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and, with it, the end of the traditional American circus. Once at the core of the American circus was the performing elephant. Today we understand that such captivity is no place for an endangered beast but, for much of this country’s history, circus elephants were one of the centerpieces of live entertainment.

This is the tale of the first two elephants to ever arrive in the United States. The first came by ship in 1796, an Indian elephant whose unusual appearance in the cattle pens at a popular local tavern would inspire one farmer to seek another one out for himself.

Her name was Old Bet, a young African elephant at the heart of all American circus mythology. She appeared in traveling menageries, equestrian circuses and even theatrical productions, long before humans really understood the nature of these sophisticated animals.

Find out how her strange, eventful and tragic life helped inspire the invention of American spectacle and how her memory lives on today in one town in Upstate New York.

To get this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

Subscribe to The First here so that you don’t miss future episodes!

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio from your mobile device.

Or listen to it straight from here:




The circus comes to town: The banner on the elephant says Old Bet was “the first elephant to tread American soil.” In fact she was most likely the second.


The Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery. Recently a building excavation discovered the foundations of the Bull’s Head. Read all about it here.

Some images from the Somers Historical Society and their marvelous museum to the early American circus.

Chains which purportedly bound Old Bet.

Old Bet’s collar, which she wore from town to town.

At the right is Old Bet’s buckle.


History in the Making 3/19 “Opulent Grandeur” Edition

Arriving at Madison Square Garden one century ago, you would find the Barnum & Bailey circus in town with their new spectacular, The Wizard Prince of Arabia. (Poster from the blog My Delineated Life)

All Nine Lives: The odd, little tale of Peter, the pole-sliding fire cat from Bushwick. [The Hatching Cat]

Prince Charles: What do Fiorello LaGuardia, Woody Guthrie, Diane Arbus and Goodnight Moon have in common? [Forgotten NY]

My Khaleesi:  An ominous fire-breathing dragon landed in front of Lincoln Center last night. No, really. [Gothamist]

A Classy Discovery: The horse-adorned remains of an Upper East Side riding school and former home of an illegal raffle racket. [Daytonian in Manhattan]

DINE WITH SLIM: A host of old New York neon signs from over 75 years ago. [New York Neon]

And finally, if you’re looking to save money this summer, Bowery Boys co-host Tom Meyers gives some tips on budget travel for the podcast Amateur Traveler. [Listen here or download on iTunes]

Below: Advertisement for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, March 25, 1914. Featuring ‘Fifty Famously Funny Clowns’…..

Pardon our appearance. Please enjoy this smoking clown.

It’s time to spruce it up around here! I’m experimenting with new banners over the next day and figuring out which looks the best. Some other design features might change as well. So if things look occasionally weird, it’s most likely only temporary. Thanks for your patience!

In the meantime, here’s a picture of a clown smoking under a no smoking sign during a performance of Ringling Bros. at Madison Square Garden (the one that used to be on 49th/50th Streets), 1953 (Courtesy LIFE Google images, photo by Cornell Capa)

Circus activism: Barnum’s female stars demand right to vote, name baby giraffe ‘Miss Suffrage’ at Madison Square Garden

The famed Barnum & Bailey’s presented an elaborate Cleopatra-themed stage show during its 1912 season, featuring over 1,500 performers. The show had debuted just the week before at Madison Square Garden. Certainly some of its stars — perhaps Cleopatra herself? — participated in the March 1912 suffrage event. 

Women did not have the right to vote one hundred years ago. I know this is not an unknown fact. There are people who are still alive who remember that an extra X chromosome excluded you from what is today considered a basic American right for adults.

This struck me as particularly odd this morning, having read last evening all about some odd events from a hundred years ago, March 31, 1912, involving the Barnum & Bailey circus troupe, in town to perform at Madison Square Garden (back in its Madison Square location). The female stars of Barnum’s traveling show decided to throw their support behind the suffragist cause — and the newspapers could barely keep their laughter in check.

Modern women activists of the day were happy to see any headlines relating their cause, as long as the environment was a respectable one. The circus was not one of those environs. Then consider that most newspapers were operated by men and read by men. While some progressive sheets supported suffrage, several chose to cast the cause in a satirical light where possible. The ladies of Barnum & Bailey gave reporters a particularly ripe opportunity for a little spoofing.

Seventy-five women employed by America’s most famous circus organized an afternoon suffrage rally and invited the press to the world’s first ‘circus suffrage society‘. How indeed could reporters resist a group of comely acrobats and horse wranglers, presenting their cause on the site of caged animals?

It was meant as a solemn pronouncement; reporters mocked it. “They Organize As Man-Eating Hyena Grins, Elephants Trumpet‘, went the Tribune headline, as the circus’s publicity agent “solemnly sw[o]re last night with a hand on his heart that the meeting was a real, honest-to-goodness suffrage meeting.” [source]  This was Barnum territory, after all. Although the great showman had died many years earlier, perhaps after decades of chicanery and misdirection, nobody could take a Barnum photo opportunity with a straight face.

But it was a serious endeavor, led by petite circus rider Josie De Mott (pictured at left) and acrobat Zella Florence. Included in the audience were animal trainers, wire walkers, ‘hand balancers’, dancers, acrobats and even a few strong ladies, including the renown Katie Sandwina, ‘the female Hercules’ (pictured below).

Not in attendance, however, were key members of the mainstream suffrage movement — notably Brooklyn socialite Inez Millholland and the movement’s de facto leader Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mrs. Blatch, the New York Times noted, was having tea with her fellow esteemed suffragists at their 46 East 29th Street headquarters. (It should be noted they were only a block away from Madison Square Garden!) However, perhaps recognizing the value of a traveling suffragist show, they did deign to send a representative named Beatrice Jones.

Clearly flustered by the appearance of the press — the society ladies of the suffrage movement did not consider a circus ring an appropriate political venue — Jones repeatedly asked the ladies if they were serious, then dispensed advice on how to conduct themselves as standard-bearers of the roving suffragist cause.

At one point, the male half of Barnum’s husband-and-wife riding act stormed in and dragged his partner from the meeting. The crowd assailed the interloper with boos and hisses.

After the meeting, De Mott and the other circus suffragists created a dandy of a photo op, moving to a cage and presenting the name of ‘Miss Suffrage’ to a young baby giraffe. The Times coyly suggested the animal was male: “[B]y nightfall he couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.”

The ‘proper’ suffragists acquiesced and eventually did meet with their more flamboyant sisters over tea the following week. The society activists marveled at the vigor of the Barnum ladies. “It is because they have so much exercise,” one exclaimed, all the while “looking envious at the at the smooth skins and rosy cheeks,” the Times condescendingly added.

Top picture courtesy the Boston Public Library. The picture of Ms. DeMott comes from this blog about West Hempstead history and has a lovely story about the feisty circus star. And as for Mrs. Sandwina (at right), you can read all about this wonderful lady at Forgotten Newsmakers.